Article and photos by Anne Ehart
For decades, thousands of people have attended the Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving morning, and millions more have watched it on television. Giant balloons of well-known characters have been hugely popular over the years. But who’s behind all the ropes and helium that go into the making of the parade balloons?
David Lee, 73, inflated and piloted balloons for the 2017 parade, marking his 16th consecutive Macy’s Parade. A resident of Succasunna, N.J., Lee spends his Thanksgiving holiday with his inflation crew.
Lee spent 35 years teaching high school sciences at Mountain Lakes High School in his small New Jersey town and retired in 2002. His love for ballooning began with his first hot air balloon ride in 1998. Ever since his first Macy’s parade in 2001, Lee has channeled his ballooning passion as a Thanksgiving Day balloon handler.
The streets flanking the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West bustled with people of all ages as balloons in the shape of Frozen’s Olaf and the Grinch began to take shape. The balloon inflation the Wednesday before the parade has become a crowd-drawing event. On Wednesday afternoon, clouds were clearing for a warm and sunny pre-parade festivity.
“We don’t say ‘blow up,’ we inflate. ‘Blow up’ is a bad word,” said Lee.
Lee became involved with the parade when he met the parade president at a hot air balloon festival on Long Island, and they shared their fascination with the chemistry behind ballooning. “He said, ‘why don’t you work on the parade staff?’” said Lee.
Lee has been a part of the holiday cheer ever since, and it’s been a family affair. “My daughter is right over there working on the balloons,” said Lee, pointing up the street to the Olaf balloon. “My wife used to do it too before she passed away.”
“For both of us, inflating balloons is stress relief,” said Lee.
Though the parade happens only once a year, Lee’s devotion to ballooning is deep. Lee, recognized by the American Chemical Society as one of the top four chemistry teachers in the country in 1999, has served as chairman of the Great Eastern Balloon Association’s Safety Seminar for 10 years.
Lee does everything from repairing balloon rips to guiding rope holders down the street during the parade, and he enjoys it all, stopping to chat with passers-by, and answering questions about the balloons before he and his team begin inflating. Lee made a connection with fascinated pedestrians despite the NYPD barricade between him and the public. Just past noon, people getting an up close and personal look at balloons ready for inflation were shuffled to Columbus Avenue, one block west .
The parade balloons average 12,000 cubic feet of helium, weigh several hundred pounds once inflated and require dozens of handlers, he said. For 2017, the parade had 15 giant balloons and another 20 smaller ones.
Security was increased this year, after the terrorist truck attack in lower Manhattan on Halloween. Hours of the inflation were also moved ahead two hours, taking place from 1-8 p.m. instead of 3-10 p.m. in past years.
Inflators clad in jumpsuits of orange, red, or green were smiling and having fun, powered by spreads of snacks, bagels and coffee.
“I don’t spend Thanksgiving with my family, I spend it with the balloons,” said Lee.
After the parade, the inflation crew celebrates and has its own Thanksgiving meal. “We go to another balloonist’s home, there’s about 25 of us,” said Lee. “We have dinner and watch a recording of the parade. We all cheer when one of us shows up on TV; I showed up big time this year. I almost ran into the camera man.”